When Yuan Xinqiang’s last negotiations for marriage with a Chinese woman fell through over monetary matters, he, like many other men in China, asked a matchmaker to help him find a Vietnamese fiancée. But his happiness, he told The Beijing News, was short-lived: His bride-to-be vanished just two months after they were introduced, along with dozens of other Vietnamese women in the area.
In that cluster of villages in the Hebei Province city of Handan, about 300 miles southwest of Beijing, the police have set up a task force to investigate reports of marriage fraud, the official English-language newspaper China Daily reported.
Since January, a Vietnamese woman who had lived in the area for more than 20 years had helped introduce other Vietnamese women to local men, collecting thousands of dollars in matchmaking fees. By late November, however, more than 100 of the women had vanished, China Daily reported. Several had lived in China for only a few months.
Several calls to the Quzhou Public Security Bureau, which is reportedly leading the investigation, went unanswered.
Like many other young men from the region, Mr. Yuan, 22, had struggled to find a wife, The Beijing News reported on Monday. A local official told the newspaper that there was a surfeit of men in the area because of China’s one-child policy, which was initiated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and because of gender-selective abortions.
There are 118 men in China today for every 100 women.
Mr. Yuan’s parents are in poor health, and his father said this was the main reason his son’s efforts to find a Chinese wife had failed, the paper reported. Another obstacle was a lack of funds. “You spend 200,000 on just betrothal gifts, and besides that, the woman also demands that you have a car and a new house,” the article quoted Mr. Yuan as saying. An expenditure of 200,000 renminbi is equivalent to more than $32,600.
Instead, for gifts worth 100,000 renminbi — some of which Mr. Yuan borrowed from relatives — he brought home a Vietnamese woman who went by the Chinese name Lan Lan. He intended to apply for a marriage certificate at the end of the year and to hold a celebratory banquet. But the Vietnamese matchmaker, Wu Meiyu, had kept Lan Lan’s Vietnamese identity papers, along with those of many other Vietnamese women, on the pretext that she would soon return to Vietnam to process their visas.
On the morning of Nov. 21, Lan Lan told her prospective in-laws that she was going to visit a friend. She never returned, nor did several other Vietnamese women in the surrounding area, villagers told The Beijing News.
The only woman who returned, Wu Xiaohong (no relation to Wu Meiyu), said that she had been drugged at a banquet on Nov. 21 and that she had woken up in Handan city. She told the Chinese news media that her captors wanted to find her a new husband, but that she had refused and called her husband, who came to pick her up. Her version of events could not be verified.
The villagers also told The Beijing News that Ms. Wu, the matchmaker, had been brought to the village as a bride more than two decades ago but that she had managed to communicate that fact only after she learned Mandarin. After an early escape attempt, she had returned to the village, they said.
The police in Quzhou County have reportedly detained three peoplein connection with the investigation and are searching for Ms. Wu and another suspect, who has the surname Li. Although news reports have put the number of missing women at more than 100, the police said that only 28 villagers had reported such fraud, China Daily reported last week.
Those who filed police reports were all from villages under the jurisdiction of Handan, which is best known as the birthplace of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
Stories of Vietnamese brides have become common in rural China, where many bachelors say they are squeezed out of the marriage market because they lack the funds to satisfy the demands of Chinese families. Unfortunately for these men, runaway foreign brides are also common — though 100 in one area is a larger number than usual.
Although the police suspect that the Hebei case involves marriage fraud, Chinese government officials and international rights organizations have expressed concern that some international marriages involve human trafficking.
From 2009 to 2012, the Chinese police returned to Vietnam more than 1,800 women who had been brought to China illegally, Chen Shiqu, the head of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s anti-trafficking office, told the official news agency Xinhua last year.
It is difficult to estimate how many trafficked Vietnamese women are in China, said Annette Lyth, the regional project manager for the United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons.
“Both China and Vietnam are extremely difficult countries when it comes to any kind of data collection, and even more so when it comes to such a sensitive issue,” Ms. Lyth said. She added that the Chinese government appeared to be taking the issue more seriously in recent years.
“Due to the one-child policy being a root cause to marriage trafficking, it used to be extremely sensitive to discuss this,” Ms. Lyth said. “However, recently the government has started to acknowledge that it exists, and the importance of finding ways to counter it.”
A British government report found in 2011 that 60 percent of women who had been brought to China by traffickers from 2005 to 2009 had escaped. The Chinese police rescued 25 percent of those women, the study said, and the rest were released after their families paid money to the traffickers.
In October, a Chinese court sentenced five people to prison terms ranging from six to 12 years for trafficking Vietnamese with the intent of arranging their marriage.
In an interview with China Daily, Wang Ying, an anti-trafficking official at the Ministry of Public Security, said that many Chinese websites and agencies that introduce Chinese men to foreign brides were involved in trafficking.
In many ways, fighting such trafficking is difficult. The border between China and Vietnam stretches about 750 miles. Thousands of day laborers and traders cross it every day, either through one of the official crossing points or by way of dozens of semilegal and unofficial forested pathways.
A search of Chinese websites turns up numerous services that promise to introduce potential suitors to Vietnamese women, and many of them feature photographs of purportedly happy couples. One website, 51888.com, offers to handle paperwork, including visas for travel to Vietnam, Cambodia or Indonesia to find a wife, for the equivalent of about $8,800.
But there are terms and conditions, the website says: The fee cannot be returned, no matter what happens after the marriage.